You get a lot of mixed reactions when it comes to how a website should use an advertising disclosure. You can read the FTC disclosure guidelines here and you’ll find a Q&A from the FTC here. Although not every blogger or influencer uses them since the FTC goes after the brand and not the blogger, Google threw a new twist into disclosing relationships this week.
Google released a set of guidelines saying that you must follow the FTC advertising disclosure guidelines if you’re receiving products or reviewing them. Although it’s geared towards bloggers and review sites, it is safe to assume that Google will update and include affiliates and other web properties that are being compensated. This could mean coupon sites, loyalty sites and many other types of partners who use affiliate links but don’t disclose the relationship.
How does this affect you and your site? If you rely on Google traffic, you may get a manual penalty (these are very hard to get rid of) and that could wipe out your business. This means your CPM ads will hurt when your organic traffic drops and your sponsorships could dry up with a lack of traffic.
This post will go through:
- Where the issues are being talked about
- How Google can find out if you’re being compensated
- Why the placement of your disclosure is very important (even if you disagree with the FTC guidelines)
- What you can do to prepare in case Google decides to start penalizing sites. (It’ll probably be called the blogger or affiliate update)
Because we are talking about disclosing, I want to disclose that I am not a licensed attorney, a lawyer and I cannot give any legal advice. The following is just opinions about affiliate marketing, blogging and SEO. You’ll need professional and licensed legal help if you want legal advice.
Where You Can Read More
Google originally announced the blogger and review site advertising disclosure guidelines here. Then large SEO sites and private communities started talking about it. Across the board these communities are predicting manual penalties for sites that aren’t disclosing their relationships with vendors. You can find some posts here, here and here.
While the FTC is going after merchants and brands, Google is going after the blogger, affiliate and influencer.
Why would Google do this? There’s two reasons.
- Their job is to provide honest and unbiased results (Keep the jokes and comments to yourself).
- If the non-compliant influencer no longer has traffic, they can no longer influence. This may start with a manual penalty on their website, but could also lead to social media profiles, posts and pages that get indexed from specific social sites and anywhere else you have undisclosed and compensated content. This could destroy a large portion of income for affiliates, affiliate programs, bloggers and anyone else that relies on Google traffic.
If Google is able to help ensure that the results showing up are compliant with the FTC, they can then be on the good side of the FTC and in theory provide a more accurate and unbiased results to their end users.
How Can Google Find Out If You’re Being Compensated
This is much easier than you think. Remember, Google is not stupid, it’s continually updating the way it crawls the web and mapping similarities and patterns that it finds. It looks at code and also visually at your website. It has robots, spiders and human reviewers. If you can be grouped with others by hitting a few of the robotic checkpoints, you can then be tagged for a manual review by a human.
Here are a few ways this can happen.
- Disclosure banners – Google is able to see and map networks of disclosure banners. This could be from a static template produced by a blog, an affiliate program, a blogger network, etc… They’ve been mapping networks that use badges and banners for years.
- Placement of disclosures – Google reads code. They look at how websites appear on many devices and will know where and how the disclosure appears. If you try to hide it in the footer, in a drop down, etc… they will know. If they feel that is not good enough or compliant, you may get a penalty. This is why you want to think of where your disclosure is on mobile devices as well as desktops and tablets.
- Cloaked links – Google crawls and follows links. It reads the redirects and looks at the page you send the visitor too. A cloaked link looks good for consumers, but Google can see what you’re doing and using. If you’re using affiliate links or links with parameters so that you and the brands you work with can track their results, you can be mapped.
- Patterns of links and content for brands – Many larger brands, startups that are launching and others will do massive giveaways with a press release. If you’re writing about and linking to these brands, think about what you’ll have in common with the sites that got the products for review. Product names, post or mention dates, images or shots and other similar attributes can put you on the radar as being part of the PR list and needing a disclosure.
- Non text based disclosures may hurt you – Some bloggers will use an image that has the disclosure because it’s easier to have automatically appear in their templates. The issue with this is that Google may not recognize it as a disclosure. If they can’t, then you may get penalized even if you are compliant.
- Contest/Giveaway software – If you host giveaways and contests, you can now be mapped by the software you’re using. If the brands are the sponsors and you’re not no-following them, you may get mapped.
- URL parameters – If you’re part of a PR push and have a tracking parameter like campaign name, and some of the sites that also use these paramaters are found, you could get mapped and grouped with them. The unique parameter is what gives it away and if everything is do follow, you’re breaking Google’s guidelines. Remember, parameters may not be natural looking links since they are normally given and placed by a brand. A natural link is a direct link with no tracking pointing to a relevant page or resource within another site.
- Images – Google tries to identify what is on an image. If a brand is doing unboxing videos and also providing creative with a professional shot, this can be mapable.
- Words – If you use words like ftc disclosure, advertising disclaimer, etc… you can be grouped in with others. This is when you need to check your do follow vs. no follow on older posts where you are/were compensated.
There are a ton of other ways that you can get mapped or added to the list of sites that do reviews and are compensated. Even if you don’t do paid reviews and everything is 100% your own, you have no real way to let Google know. Google’s job is to index the web and create patterns. That’s how SEO and their database works.
If you associate yourself with a site that is doing reviews or become mapable for that group, you will want to consider adding compliant disclosures, even if you’re not doing paid reviews. You could simply say that you are not being compensated or being given anything free. Instead you bought it on your own meaning it is honest and unbiased.
There will be a lot of room for errors with Google if they do penalties so you may want to be more proactive than reactive.
Why the placement of your disclosure is very important (even if you disagree with the FTC guidelines)
When it was just the FTC, you may have been more calm since it’s the brand that took the hit. Now that Google is coming after you, you may want to be more serious about the placement and accuracy of your disclosures.
The placement of your disclosure is important because Google looks at code and how it appears to the end user. If you’re hiding it in the footer, below a post, etc… then you are going against what is written on the FTC website. If Google decides this isn’t adequate for them either, now you are the one who will take the hit. This is why the placement and actual compliance is important.
What you can do to prepare in case Google decides to start penalizing sites
This one is easy, get over your issues with disclosing your compensation model and begin using disclosures. You can hire an internet attorney to help make sure it is compliant and also look for a reputable SEO firm to get an opinion if it should be good with Google’s new guidelines. If you’re in any of the programs we provide affiliate management for, I’m always happy to help take a look from an SEO perspective.
The next thing is to provide a clear and easy to understand disclosure stating the relationship at the very top of each blog post or page where you have compensated content. This could include reviews, giveaways, monetized links, etc… If you want to go a step further, on pages where you don’t have compensated content, say it’s your honest opinions and you were not compensated and will not be. This is a bit extreme, but could also help your readers know what is and is not compensated.
One last thing is to make sure you have a Google Search Console account. By creating this and making sure your website is listed, you’ll not only have a lot more data about your blog/website, but if you get a manual penalty, this is where Google will let you know about it. It’s free and only takes a couple of minutes.
It will be interesting to see how Google responds to disclosures being visible or compliant. There are a ton of large sites monetizing now, sites that have contributors who are being paid by brands and affiliate sites that do reviews who are not using disclosures. Google has wiped out large sites before so we may see another round of algorithms coming out. This could be a huge opportunity for smaller blogs and influencers to gain exposure in the SERPs as well as grow their brands.